Tuesday, February 28, 2006

New Stuff, Media, Security

I'd like to discuss three areas today; Apple's unveiling of 'Fun new products', using the Mac as a home media centre, and security.

So, Apple a while ago invited a few select people to attend a special event, which took place today and saw them release 3 new products: a leather case for the iPod, an iPod Hi-Fi, and the Intel Mac Mini, which shipped a new version of Front Row alongside it. I must say I'm slightly underwhelmed and bemused by the first two, but the new Mac Mini tickles my fancy.

Leather Case:
OK, it's sexy; yes, it has the Apple logo on it...but ultimately, what the heck is it for? There are SO many iPod cases out there, many of which are really, really sweet. This one looks like a nice, pretty version of the slip that comes with the iPod, and given that Apple claimed to have spent a long time over the design of this, its lack of access to the controls and stand-out features make a very uninspiring product, despite it being made of Italian leather.

Now, I'm not saying Apple shouldn't be venturing into this market; the iPod case market is HUGE, and this will no doubt generate extra cash (face it, an Apple brand case for an iPod is always gonna be that little bit sweeter than a non-Apple case with equal features), but this will really only irk third party companies that make cases whilst bringing in those extra pennies. Nor am I saying that Apple is incapable of designing nice, low-end products and accessories, granted, in general they're better at designing the high end stuff that needs accessorising, but some things like the iPod Sock (this is just asking for an argument) are really cute and creative. This...isn't really. Well, at least it isn't a bad product, and I'm not one to criticise Apple a lot, as you may have noticed. And oh yeah, it's US$99.

iPod Hi-Fi:

Again, slightly perplexing, but for different reasons. I actually quite like this product, and I'd love to have one around the house because it supports AirTunes and is so beautifully integrated with the iPod. A typically simple, elegant Apple design sporting wonderful features such as the Apple Remote, the ability to charge your iPod and communication with it, i.e. when you plug your iPod in, you get a special 'Speakers' menu.

Pretty cool!

But at the price of an iPod itself, it's not the cheapest accessory. However, my main concern is with some of the reports and analysis I'm reading that suggest that this move might seriously peeve off competitor's, possibly driving them to back other products. Whilst this is unlikely, as the iPod has such huge market share, the many accessories out there are undoubtably part of the reason why the iPod is so popular. Apple, maybe it'd be friendlier to let some people share some of the pie!

Intel Mac Mini:
Now this seriously excites me. Why? 2 main reasons: a) The SPEED, b) The inclusion of Front Row and its new features.

Speed
This thing is a FAST. The 1.5GHZ Intel Core Solo and 1.66GHZ Core Duo mean that the new Mac Mini crushes its predecessor in benchmark tests; 4.7 times faster in integer calculations, and 5.5 times better in floating point calculations. On top of that, the 667MHz frontside bus is HUGE; for comparison, my iBook G4 (which runs beautifully), has a 142MHz bus. Real world tests obviously won't be this fast, but will still represent a huge increase in performance. It can now support up to 2GB of RAM, which I'd recommend as it now uses integrated graphics technology, instead of a simple graphics card; this will improve performance, but won't use separate memory for graphics.

On the downside, there is an increase in US$100 in price, which means no more sub-$500 Mac...but you have to remember that a) this is a BETTER machine, b) it now includes Airport and Bluetooth on all machines, which would have cost more than $100 to add onto the previous machine. And heck, you get 4 USB ports (instead of 2), an Apple Remote and a Superdrive on the high end machine.

But what really excites me is this...

Front Row
Why, you ask? After all, it's only Front Row. Yes, and no. The new version of Front Row now supports media sharing over a network, using Bonjour, I believe. And Apple's emphasised the relative ease of hooking this thing up to your TV. What does this mean? Plug your Mac Mini into your TV screen, turn on Front Row, and you can play all your media that might be stored on your iMac in the other room, without having to copy it to your Mac Mini. Sit on your sofa, use the Apple Remote, and enjoy. With things like the Belkin flip switch, you can also use one keyboard, display and mouse (Apple dubs it BYOKDM) to switch between say, that PC you use for gaming, and this peach of a Mac system. Dual core, Superdrive, all these features for $799? Go look up the word bargain. There's so much potential to use this machine as a home entertainment system.

Home Media Centres
Speaking of home entertainment systems, I'd like to move on and briefly discuss the notion of using your Mac as one.

Now, we all know how beautifully the Mac handles your photos, videos, music and DVDs, and this makes them ideal candidates for home media centres. With the new Mac Mini, why buy a DVD player? With Front Row now supporting Bonjour, and AirTunes, you can now easily access your media over a home network from anywhere in the house. This is made even better by Front Row's cinema-like, media centric interface - it no longer feels like you're working on a computer when Front Row is invoked, and it's quite an experience.

A brilliant concept, but what about those, like me, who don't have one of the new, nifty Front Row-enabled machines? Well, there are alternative ways of using your Mac as a home entertainment system, and here are two that I found on the MacCast.

First of all, you can get Front Row to work on your system, you just need to run this hack to get it going.

I tried this on my iBook, and found that it wasn't very reponsive and had a few glitches, for example, I couldn't watch movie trailers. But when it did work, it was SWEET, and I had a lot of fun just switching between my OSX interface and Front Row.

Remember, this is a hack, not supported by Apple, so it might have side-effects, and I actually wouldn't really recommend it, except just to see that it works. Getting rid of it is easy though; delete Front Row and its preferences file (I found both by Spotlighting 'Front Row'), and run the latest Combo Updater for Mac OSX.

A second, and much better solution, is to try this; e-Quinix's MediaCentral. It's free, and allows you to watch streaming internet TV as well; I love being able to watch the BBC news from my computer. It's a great concept, and best of all, it's free - I'd definitely recommend giving this a shot.

It isn't perfect though; its transitions are slow and it just generally doesn't run that smoothly. It also loses out to the Front Row hack in a few areas. With photos, it can't do slideshows anywhere near as well as Front Row, and it doesn't support AirTunes like Front Row does. However, movie trailers work beautifully on it and it supports lots of different formats (e.g. Real Media for streaming).

Security
The last thing I want to talk about is this issue of Mac security that's come into the spotlight in Mac news lately. The Leap-A malware was reported as what is essentially the first ever Mac OSX virus, and a serious Safari vulnerability has been highlighted too. PC users have been wagging their fingers at us and going 'I told you so', but let's be realistic, the sub-50 people who go infected by Leap-A either did it intentionally, or were probably really stupid. Why? Because to get infected you have to download it, unzip it, run it, and TYPE IN YOUR ADMIN PASSWORD when it requests it. Now this malware was disguised as jpegs...jpegs don't do that. And to spread it, you have open iChat and enable Bonjour, where the person you're spreading it to must accept your file transfer. Secondly, the Safari vulnerability can be eliminated by either going to preferences and unchecking the 'Open safe files automatically' option, or using another browser like Camino or Firefox.

Our Macs are safe. 1 piece of malware compared to however many thousand Windows viruses are out there. On top of that, in order to really mess with anything, malware would need your admin password. Well, I know I'm not installing anti-virus software. Plus, the Mac's UNIX base is inherently safer too; a technical issue I won't get into. But it's partly to do with software needing to be given your admin password before it tries to perform potentially unsafe tasks, unlike PCs, where viruses can access your registry, and anything else for that matter, without you knowing.

One possible way of beefing up security is to not run on an admin account on a daily basis. If you do, you can change this easily by creating a new account, allowing it to administer your computer, and then unchecking admin capabilities on your main account. I did this, but then changed back to my normal accounts because I simply couldn't be bothered to deal with an extra admin account, and also because I couldn't think of a good name for the account, hehe. It really doesn't make that much of a difference anyway, because you can do admin stuff on a standard account if you have the password. The only real security measure I take is to disable automatic login, but even that seems kind of pointless, seeing as I am the only one who uses my main Mac.

Face it, Macs are still safe, just like iPods are still not hazardous. But let's remember to be vigilant, in case things change in the future.

Sorry about the extremely long post; I'll try to keep it shorter next time.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Podcasts galore

With the world of audio and video podcasting exploding with content, from news to comedy to hobbies, there's bound to be something for everybody. But with so many different podcasts available, how is one supposed to go about writing on them in general? Well, I'll try my best. Let's take a look at the plethora of different kinds of podcasts out there, and then I'll tell you about some of my favourites.

But first, let's talk a bit about podcasts in general. If you don't already know what they are (shame on you!), podcasts are online, radio (and now even TV) style programs that you can subscribe to or download. They cover a phenomenal range of information, and a lot of people have a few podcasts that they listen to or watch regularly and religiously. If you haven't joined the podcasting revolution, head on over to the iTunes Music Store, click on 'Podcasts', and browse away to your heart's desire. Best of all, they're free. And they're so flexible. You can treat them like shows, and have iTunes automatically delete all but the newest episodes; or, for those really sweet podcasts, you can keep every episode and indulge in their brilliance again and again.

Why are these things so cool? Well, if you have an iPod, there's nothing better than turning your computer on in the morning, downloading your favourite daily news show, plugging your iPod in to sync it, and then listening to it while you're on your way to work, school, or wherever the winds may take you. If you have a video iPod, even better; you don't need to wait for these programs to air, you can watch them any time you want.

Now let's take a look at some of the content available on podcast. One of my favourite things about podcasts is that you'll find content from all corners of the Earth. Huge news conglomerates like the BBC, CNN, Newsweek, Businessweek, ABC; you name it, they've all joined the podcasting revolution. Big businesses and entertainment networks such as Disney, Fox TV and loads of radio stations have joined the bandwagon too. But on top of all that, there are thousands, nay, millions of independent podcasts, many of which are incredibly captivating. These come from anyone and everyone: the bored kid in front of his computer; the enthusiast eager to share his passion with others; the ranting lunatic, foaming at the mouth, you name it. Individuals like you and I, sitting at home, can make our own podcasts, put them on iTunes and share them with the world, but more on that later.

News
Podcasts are a fantastic way to keep informed. The vast majority of news providers are now available on podcast, and if they aren't, then they're clearly lagging behind. The BBC, CNN, CBC and many others provide daily news roundups, opinions and insight. On top of that, you have your weekly publications, such as Newsweek and Businessweek, whose weekly shows often offer valuable analysis and intriguing food for though. Now, some news networks, such as ABC, are even providing video podcasts. Watching these every day feels just like watching the daily news slot on TV.

Of course, news need not be restricted to broadcast journalism. Newspapers ranging from the Independent to the New York Times have their own podcasts, and you'll find a lot of specific event coverage too, such as podcasts covering the ongoing Winter Olympics. There's plenty of politics in podcasting too, heck, US Senator Barack Obama has his own podcast.

Then there are the special interest news podcasts. If you're a Apple enthusiast (like me, obviously), there are a lot of Apple, Mac and iPod podcasts that help to keep one up to date with Apple news and reviews. One ought to be able to find news podcasts for any area of interest; technology news, sports, photography and so many more. Podcasts are an absolutely amazing way of staying up to date with your favourite current events.

Special Interests/Hobbies
One of the most beautiful things about Podcasts is the opportunity for learning that many of them provide. A lot of podcasts on specific hobbies or interests are produced by experts, professionals and talented enthusiasts, and these podcasts are designed to teach, explain and introduce these interests to people of all levels. If you're interested in bartending, photography, or snowboarding, there are podcasts for the beginner, as well as those covering highly advanced techniques and information. Want to learn how to salsa dance? No problem, subscribe to a video podcast that provides daily or weekly salsa lessons! These shows can range from daily, one-minute tips, to weekly, in-depth coverage of a specific technique or concept.

This ability to cater to different levels of listeners is nowhere more evident than in the realm of technology podcasts. There are shows covering advanced Photoshop techniques, high-level post-production tools used by professionals, and of course, programming and hacks galore. But then there are the shows that try to teach the listener how to, for example, use a Mac at the most basic level. No matter what level of expertise you are at, if you want to learn more about an area of interest or a hobby, or if you're an expert and want to hear what other experts think, podcasts are an ideal medium to do so.

Comedy
Who doesn't enjoy a good laugh? Comedy podcasts can be a real delight. Available podcasts vary from the earth-shatteringly brilliant, soon-to-be classics like the Ricky Gervais Podcast (possibly the greatest podcast ever?), to the short, daily snippets of fun like the Onion Radio News (bizarre, pointless news stories, updated daily), to the sadistically hilarious video podcasting phenomenon that is the Happy Tree Friends Podcast.

Obviously, not everyone is going to find every comedic podcast funny, but if you can find one that amuses you, it can really become one of life's daily, weekly, or monthly joys.

The VIDEOS
Video podcasting has boomed lately, and there is enormous potential. There are TV-style, professional looking shows like Mac Break; official videos such as ABC news, and cartoons, cartoons and more cartoons. It's like having another TV. Another awesome thing that video podcasts can do is give video demonstrations; what better way to learn to salsa dance or how to boot your Mac in Firewire Target Mode than to see it done right in front of you?

All I can say is, I'm sure video podcasting will grow and grow and grow; and if you have an iPod with video...I envy you.

The Rest
There's so much more out there, far more than I can cover, but here are some other areas of podcasting that might be worth a mention.

Music
Obviously, radio and iTunes would be nothing without the content that forms their very foundation, and podcasting is no different. Podcasts were originally designed to be online radio shows; radio shows and channels were originally designed to broadcast music to the public. And this original purpose has not been diluted one bit; there are few better ways to sample the newest and hottest jazz tunes, hip-hop beats, classical serenades, the list goes on. If you like music, the obvious avenue of using podcasts, well...makes itself quite obvious.

The Utterly Strange
If you allow anybody to broadcast content to the world, you're bound to encounter some...unique...content. Call them insane, call them genius, call them what you will, what cannot be disputed is that there is some unusual stuff out there. For example, there's the Ask A Ninja podcast, which is dedicated to answering email questions...with a twist - some dude dressed as a ninja answers them.

Others
There are some unique, one-off podcasts that I found really interesting, such as the 22-minute, behind-the-scenes video featurette on the making of the film 'Hoodwinked'. Only one episode, but definitely a novel idea, and worth watching.

Some podcasts are just, well, fun. The hugely popular Tiki Bar podcast for example, is just a helter-skelter of entertainment, packed into a small, video broadcast. With podcasting, creativity can truly be allowed to shine.

One final area that might be worth a mention is the personal podcasting that can be found. Some people use podcasts to keep their friends across the world informed as to what they're doing; kind of like an audio blog or diary. An interesting concept, let's see if it grows.

My Favourites!
Let me tell you about some of my favourite podcasts before I let you go off and find your own. These are the ones that I listen to religiously.

The MacCast: This podcast is a beautiful, bi-weekly podcast that covers Mac news, reviews, troubleshooting, and any other questions of interest that might tickle the fancy of the Apple enthusiast. Always relevant, very well done, always captivating and worth listening to. "For Mac Geeks, by Mac Geeks" My favourite podcast that I look forward to every day, and listen to as soon as I see that little blue dot next to it.

ABC World News Now - Video: This is brilliant. I have my opinions on American news coverage, but the fact that ABC provides a daily video news broadcast just blows me away. I can watch the news every day, on my computer, as if it were a TV. If this expands to other networks (BBC, anybody?), I will be ever grateful to ABC for taking this first step. Please please please let other networks catch on to this.

Happy Tree Friends: This is sick. If you haven't heard of Happy Tree Friends, they're a bunch of cartoon characters who are extremely cute, but always die horrible deaths in their episodes. This never fails to make me laugh, and truly appeals to that little bit of sadism hidden away in the depths (I'd hope) of my dark, dark soul.

Mac Tips Daily: Really helpful, daily Mac tips that rarely take over a minute to listen to. If I read the title of the episode and know it already, I just skip it. Nice to have.

BBC Today: News as it ought to be; insightful, professional and not too long. A valuable daily dose of British information.

BusinessWeek: Weekly analysis of their cover story; this is a podcast that makes me think, and that can never be a bad thing.

The Ricky Gervais Show: Quite possibly the greatest podcast ever. One of the most popular and funny podcasts available. Only twelve episodes are being made, and there's only one more to go. I'm a huge Ricky Gervais fan, but this podcast is all about his producer, Karl Pilkington. If you haven't heard this yet - GO AND GET IT AND LISTEN TO IT!

Whew! That was a lot of stuff! One last thing to mention is that if you are unlucky enough to not find anything that interests you, you can always make your own podcast! It's really easy; but that perhaps...might be more appropriate in another post.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

1GB Nano, Price re-Shuffle

Well, yesterday Apple released a new 1GB iPod nano for US$149, and slashed prices on the iPod Shuffle to US$69 for the 512MB model, and $99 for the 1GB model.

So, let's take a look shall we?

At US$149, the pricing on the 1GB nano is competitive. I see this as an awesome entry-level iPod, and these should sell quickly. So the obvious question that comes with this new model is...what happens to the 1GB iPod Shuffle? I mean, who's gonna want one of those when they could get a nano instead?

Well, Apple answered that question emphatically, they cut the price of both Shuffle models to less than 100 US dollars. The Shuffle is now really, really cheap, and just as sweet (I have a personal soft spot for it, because it serves such a specific purpose so beautifully).

I've always seen the iPod Shuffle as a unique, cheap-but-sweet product, unlike a bigger investment like a Mac or another iPod. The way Apple Stores have them stacked on top of each other at checkouts echoes the sentiment that buying an iPod Shuffle could be an impulse purchase. A lot of companies give them away for free in promotions, and they make brilliant presents or thank-you gifts. I've seen people buy them in 10s; yes, these are iPods that can be bought in bulk.

So, what consequences will the price cut bring? On the one hand, one could argue that Apple will lose revenue and profit from the cheaper Shuffles, I don't subscribe to this. Why? First of all, the flash memory that the Shuffle uses is cheap, and the price of producing such memory has gotten cheaper; iPodNN reports that the price of components has dropped as much as 70%. So Apple's still definitely going to make a profit from selling iPod Shuffles. I also get a feeling that Shuffle sales will get boosted quite substantially by this huge price drop, because of the different nature of this iPod compared to the nano and the 5G.

Another great thing this price cut does is that it clearly differentiates the product lines; there's no chance of an overlap between the 1GB Shuffle and the 1GB nano because of the 50 buck price difference between them. The 3 lines are also clearly separated now - clearly catering to different parts of the market and different customer needs.

All of this should mean that overall iPod sales rise. Again. Nice. Good call Apple.

On a final note, have you seen this contest by Apple? The billion song countdown is a SICK, sick contest; the grand prize is a 20 inch iMac (doesn't specify what chip), TEN 60GB iPods, 5 black and 5 white..TEN iPods! And on top of that, Mr. Grand-Prize winner gets a $10,000 iTunes Music Store gift card. My goodness gracious me. But on top of that, to stop all of us from just sitting around and staring at the song counter (yes, it has a counter), and buying like crazy when it gets near 1 billion, Apple is giving away a 4GB black nano and a $100 ITMS gift card for every 100,000 songs bought. Given that the iTunes Music Store sells what, 20 songs per second (correct me if I'm wrong, I'm really not sure, I'm just looking at this obviously inaccurate song counter), that's pretty sweet.

Oh, and who loves video podcasts? In fact, who loves podcasts in general? In my next post I'll try and discuss some of the amazing array of content available on podcast that many may not have known to exist.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Lawsuit

Recently, a class action lawsuit was filed against Apple, claiming that the iPod causes hearing damage, and that Apple doesn't adequately warn users against the potential harm to one's ears that improper use of such devices can cause. This was covered on numerous websites, and on the MacCast, which shares my sentiments.

First of all, if you listen to music loudly, your ears can get damaged. It doesn't matter if it's an iPod, some other music player, at a concert or out of a stereo, if you blast too loudly, too often, expect some hearing damage.

Secondly, there is a bleedin' warning in the iPod manual. Let me quote it; it says:
"Warning: Permanent hearing loss may occur if earbuds or headphones are used at high volume. You can adapt over time to a higher volume of sound that may sound normal but can be damaging to your hearing. If you experience ringing in your ears or muffled speech, stop listening and have your hearing checked. The louder the volume, the less time is required before your hearing could be affected. Hearing experts suggest that to protect your hearing:
  • Limit the amount of time you use earbuds or headphones at high volume.
  • Avoid turning up the volume to block out noisy surroundings.
  • Turn the volume down if you can't hear people speaking near you."

  • How clear do you want it?

    The lawsuit claims that the design of the iPod earbuds exacerbates the problem due to the amount of sound that is lost through them, also alleging that the iPod is louder than other music players because the engineers upped its volume due to the fact that Steve Jobs is partially deaf. It also points to the fact that iPods do not meet France's standards of portable music players having a maximum output of 100 dB. Fair enough, but it also fails to point out that the iPod does meet European standards of 104 dB.

    Either way, a) what kind of feeble, frivolous excuses are these? b) Who in their right mind listens to their iPod at full volume anyway? If you do, fair enough, but you probably deserve or already have some form of hearing damage, regardless of what headphones you use; at in any rate, it shouldn't be surprising if damage develops.

    Things like this really irk me; I mean, if I buy a belt, and I fasten it so tightly that it ruptures my insides, do I go and sue the beltmaker for not warning me that fastening a belt too tightly can cause injury, even if they do have a warning against that? Or do I go and slap myself a few times for being a moron? I apologise for the terrible analogy but I think you get my point.

    Honestly...


    Hazardous? I think not.